Esapekka Lappi ends shortened Friday leg of Rally Italia Sardegna in front

Toyota returnee Esapekka Lappi was prevented from building on his small Rally Italia Sardegna lead as organisers took the decision to cancel the final two Friday stages on safety grounds.
Esapekka Lappi ends shortened Friday leg of Rally Italia Sardegna in front

Battling for supremacy on sun-baked roads and in searing heat, Lappi tops the leaderboard by 0.7 seconds from 2019 World Rally Champion, Ott Tanak. The Hyundai Motorsport man initially held the balance of power at the gravel event only for car-related problems to slow him down sufficiently for the pair to swap places.

Initially, it was Toyota's Elfyn Evans who was the man to beat. He raced into a 4.7 second lead by the conclusion of Friday’s opening stage – ‘Terranova’ – even though the Welshman – like many of his Rally1 colleagues – complained bitterly about the hanging dust. But his involvement was to be short-lived, a huge impact with a rock on the next stage rearranging the sump on his GR Yaris and sending water temperatures soaring as a result.

He did post a time on ‘Monti diAla e Budduso’ but exiting it solely on battery power suggested all was not well. A short distance away from the stage end, Evans and co-driver Scott Martin inspected the car and after making a telephone call back to the team at the service park, the decision was taken to retire.

“The feeling was OK in the car up until that point,” said Evans, whose World Rally Championship title aspirations have been dealt another blow. “In the second stage of the morning, things were working quite OK – nothing too crazy, nothing too spectacular – but unfortunately this compression caught us out by surprise and we damaged quite a lot on the underside of the car.

“Shortly afterwards, we started getting some alarms. We put two and two together and we tried to manage as best we could until the end of the stage but when we investigated further it seemed like a difficult repair, so we ran out of time to do anything and in any case, it would have been difficult to do anything I think,” he added.

Lappi – making his Rally1 gravel debut on the Mediterranean island – picked up the mantle on ‘Monti diAla e Budduso’ as Evans’ speed slowed, climbing four spots to lead Tanak by 1.9 seconds courtesy of a fastest time. Then, on the morning loop’s penultimate test – ‘Terranova 2’ – they traded positions. However, separated by only nine tenths, it remained finely poised.

That all changed on the re-run of ‘Monti diAla e Budduso’ when, 6km from the finish, Lappi collected a front left puncture. A hard-charging Tanak capitalised to extend his cushion by 2.8 seconds to 3.9. “We are trying very hard,” said the Estonian.

“Some things are difficult to manage but we are trying our best. Since Portugal, the chassis has improved a lot. If it could be exactly where it needs to be then it would be a great car.”

Behind them, a consistent approach on roads littered with wheel-busting rocks by M-Sport Ford protégé Pierre-Louis Loubet was paying dividends. He occupied third by 1.2 seconds from team-mate, Craig Breen.

Breen was held up by a “wall of dust” on Friday’s opener that resulted in him veering off the road on several occasions. An overshot towards the end of SS4 also cost the Irishman the best part of 10 seconds. “It has been a good morning – just one very silly mistake in the last stage,” said Breen. “Otherwise, we have to be quite happy with how everything has been.”

Hyundai’s Dani Sordo cut a frustrated figure initially, his I20 N relaying zero feedback through its steering wheel, but continual tweaks on the road section inched the Spaniard to a set-up much more to his liking. Coupled with setbacks to those in and around him, he returned to first service in fifth.

A front-left puncture meant Adrien Fourmaux lost that place to Sordo, with WRC leader Kalle Rovanpera also sliding down the timesheets. On stage four, he survived a huge moment on a sweeping right turn, although his GR Yaris incurred spoiler damage and a broken rear passenger side window. He soldiered on in eighth, 1.3 seconds shy of his Toyota team-mate Takamoto Katsuta.

It was much worse for a luckless Thierry Neuville, however. Quickest on Thursday’s shakedown and again on that day’s opening Super Special, his promising start was thwarted by the latest in a long line of reliability gremlins to strike his Hyundai I20 N.

It lost rear drive for the entirety of SS5 meaning he traversed it with front-wheel-drive only. Insisting he had not hit anything to cause the damage, the Belgian added: “I do not see how we can bounce back from this – it is game over for us this weekend.”

On the afternoon’s opener, Lappi surrendered 2.7 seconds to Tanak before the tables were turned through ‘Sedini – Castelsardo’ when the leader’s car developed transmission woes. He suspected power was being sent to only three of the supermini's four corners. That was the all invitation the Finn needed as he pulled back 7.1 seconds to move out in front by seventh tenths of a second.

Behind them, Loubet and Breen were squabbling for the final podium spot - but the latter’s mistake count was building. He stalled on SS6 and then spun on SS7. Lurking In their wing mirrors was Sordo. He was doing an excellent job of balancing a risk averse approach with trying to make the most of his more favourable road position. With the trio covered by a second exactly, and 16 seconds separating first and fifth, there is much to play for on day two.

The top 10 was rounded out by Fourmaux, Katsuta, Rovanpera, a hard-charging Neuville and WRC2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen at the wheel of his Skoda Motorsport Fabia Rally2 evo.

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